The Republican convention brought more evidence of The New York Times’s soft spot for Fox News. On Friday, the paper offered a glowing profile of Carl Cameron, Fox’s chief political correspondent. “Propelled by a boundless enthusiasm for presidential politics, vast quantities of Red Bull (which he carries by the six-pack in his roller suitcase) and nicotine gum (which he admits to chewing `like a fiend’), his days on the campaign trail often runs 20 hours,” Jeremy W. Peters wrote. The article described Cameron’s star status at the convention, his collegiality, his easy access to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s campaign, and his straight shooting. “Fellow journalists say they detect no bias in his reporting,” Peters wrote.
The Cameron profile recalled other complimentary pieces that the Times has periodically run about top Fox figures, like its January 2010 paean to Roger Ailes and its indulgent profile of Glenn Beck in the Times magazine later that year. When the Times is not cosseting Fox, it largely ignores it. In the last few years, it has run very few pieces analyzing Fox’s fiercely partisan coverage and its outsized impact on conservative opinion.
The reason, I think, is clear: fear. Fear of being accused of liberal bias. And fear of being attacked, either on the air or by Fox’s vigilant supporters in the comments section. (Back in the mid-2000s, when Frank Rich was regularly criticizing Fox as “GOP TV,” an irate Bill O’Reilly threatened to “get into” the “lives” of him and then executive editor Bill Keller. O’Reilly’s on-air attacks on Rich so rattled him that he sought security advice.)
The Times’s neglect of Fox is typical. Few major news organizations pay much attention to its programming. And that’s too bad, for Fox is not only a major news network but also a key political actor, and watching it offers a window into both the state of the Republican Party and the conservative movement as a whole. While watching Fox (and listening to conservative talk radio) during the 2008 presidential campaign, I found the commentary on it utterly toxic and, based on it, predicted (in a piece for CJR) that the right would wage a nasty campaign to discredit President Barack Obama. One month into his term, the Tea Party erupted.
During the recent Republican convention, Fox’s tone seemed very different. While Sean Hannity and other partisan flame-throwers still attack Obama at every opportunity, I detected much hesitancy, doubt, and frustration. After Romney’s speech, the commentators brought on to analyze it—Brit Hume, Steve Hayes, and Charles Krauthammer—were decidedly restrained. “This was not a soaring speech,” Hume said. It was “a solid speech, a good speech, but not a great speech.”
Even more striking was an exchange that Laura Ingraham had with Geraldo Rivera about Clint Eastwood. Cueing Rivera, Ingraham—a Hannity-style zealot who at all times seeks to enforce the party line—effusively praised Eastwood’s RNC performance, saying she loved it from beginning to end, not least because “it drove the left absolutely bonkers.” Rivera would have none of it. “Buffoonery,” he called the act. With Eastwood’s rumpled hair and ill-fitting suit, he said, the actor looked like he had just gotten out of “Joe’s bar” and stumbled into the convention without preparation. “I could go up there and vamp for 12 minutes and it would be funnier,” Rivera said. Despite Ingraham’s determined efforts to rein him in, Rivera kept denouncing Eastwood and the distraction he posed to Romney’s speech. It made for riveting TV.
It’s important not to make too much of this. As Jon Stewart regularly shows, Fox News remains an Obama-bashing, climate-change-denying, war-on-Christmas-promoting purveyor of conservative talking points. But those talking points seem increasingly in flux. The Republican party as a whole seems to be entering a period of painful reflection and self-evaluation, and Fox offers a ringside seat.Michael Massing is a contributing editor to CJR and the author of Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq.